Listen to BBC related story 3 May 2023 – BBC Newshour 1300
In October 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) published its first list of fungal pathogens that infect humans, and warned that certain increasingly abundant disease-causing fungal strains have acquired resistance to known antifungals1. Even though more than 1.5 million people die each year from fungal diseases, the WHO’s list is the first global effort to systematically prioritize surveillance, research and development, and public-health interventions for fungal pathogens.
Yet fungi pose another major threat to human health — one that has received even less attention than infections in people.
Hundreds of fungal diseases affect the 168 crops listed as important in human nutrition by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Despite widespread spraying of fungicides and the planting of cultivars bred to be more disease resilient, growers worldwide lose between 10% and 23% of their crops to fungal disease every year, and another 10–20% post-harvest2. In fact, the five most important calorie crops — rice, wheat, maize (corn), soya beans and potatoes — can be affected by rice blast fungus, wheat stem rust, corn smut, soybean rust and potato late blight disease (caused by a water mould oomycete), respectively. And losses from these fungi equate to enough food to provide some 600 million to 4,000 million people with 2,000 calories every day for one year3. Such losses are likely to increase in a warming world4,5.
Much more awareness of the plight of the world’s crops as a result of fungal disease is needed, as is more government and private- sector investment in crop fungal research.
Adaptive potential unleashed
In a 2019 list of 137 pests and pathogens (ranked according to impact), fungi dominate the first to sixth places for diseases affecting each of the world’s 5 most important calorie crops6. Wheat, for example, is grown over more land area than any other crop, with production yielding around 18% of all the calories consumed globally each year. Despite mitigation practices, current crop losses worldwide from infections by the Septoria tritici blotch disease-causing fungus Zymoseptoria tritici, the main wheat pathogen in temperate areas, range from 5% to 50%7. Losses caused by the wheat stem rust fungus Puccinia graminis, which frequents more tropical climates, range from 10% to 70% of the harvest3. Commodity crops, such as bananas and coffee, which in many countries generate revenue that is used to purchase calorie crops, are also vulnerable to fungal diseases.